A former Rwandan army captain is on trial in a Paris court, charged with complicity in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. It's the first such trial in France, which has been criticized for delays in prosecuting genocide suspects.
Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, appeared in court on Tuesday for the start of a seven-week jury trial on charges of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity, which carry a maximum term of life imprisonment. Wheelchair-bound, wearing a leather jacket and running shoes, he sat with his arms folded in the court room.
"It is history being made. We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years... it is late, but it is a good sign," Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.
Simbikangwa is accused of arming Hutu militias and organizing road blocks, where the militia slaughtered many victims as they arrived.
More than 800,000 people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by mainly Hutu extremists in Rwanda between April and July 1994.
Simbikangwa denies all the charges against him, though he acknowledges that he was close to the regime of president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu whose assassination on April 6, 1994, triggered the months of violence.
Trial delays criticized
France was accused at the time of not doing enough to stop the Rwandan regime, and in the two decades since, of dragging its heels regarding bringing individuals suspected of crimes against humanity to justice. Victims of the genocide, as well as human rights groups, have welcomed the landmark trial as a turning point.
So far, France has rejected requests to extradite some of the dozens of Hutu suspects, who took refuge in France, to Kigali. Authorities in France had also shown little impetus to take up cases on French soil, but now several cases linked to Rwanda's genocide are underway.
Diplomatic relations between France and Rwanda broke off between 2006 and 2009 and were restored under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Simbikangwa's lawyers, Alexandra Bourgeot and Fabrice Epstein, said in a statement quoted by news agency AFP that he was being made a "scapegoat" for the genocide as its 20th anniversary approached.
Simbikangwa, who has been a paraplegic since a car accident in the 1980s, was arrested in 2008 on the French Island of Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, where he had been living in hiding for three years.
The trial will be the first in France for crimes against humanity since Nazi collaborators Maurice Papon and Paul Touvier faced court in the 1980s and 1990s.
The United Nations tribunal on the Rwanda genocide, as well as several Western countries including Belgium, have already brought many Rwandans implicated in the genocide to justice.